Bird flu kills an endangered number of bald eagles and other wild birds, and many sick birds arrive at rehab centers unstable with their claws and unable to fly.
“It’s quite a sight to see an eagle with a wingspan of six feet with uncontrollable seizures due to highly pathogenic avian influenza,” said Victoria Hall, executive director of the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota. “At this point, they are so far away from the disease that there are no treatment options left.”
The latest outbreak of the highly contagious virus has killed about 37 million chickens and turkeys on U.S. farms since February, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has confirmed 956 cases of bird flu in wild birds, including at least 54 bald eagles. But the actual number is likely to be significantly higher, as not every dead wild bird has been tested and the federal number does not include cases registered by wildlife rehabilitation centers.
The last reported mortality was almost 10 times higher than the 99 confirmed cases of wild birds during the last outbreak of bird flu in 2015. This time the virus was found in birds in 34 states, indicating that it is much more common than seven years ago.
The U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center also collects data from wildlife officials on suspected and confirmed bird flu deaths. It lists 8,536 recent deaths from wild birds from avian influenza.
“This is definitely an unprecedented event,” said researcher Rebecca Poulson, who has studied bird flu for 15 years at the University of Georgia’s Southeast Cooperative Study of Wildlife Diseases. “The number of birds and the species and conditions in which it has already been found is quite alarming.”
Waterfowl, including ducks and geese that usually carry the virus, and birds of prey and scavengers that feed on them, are the most commonly diseased birds, but cases have been confirmed in more than three dozen species. Ducks and geese can usually live with the virus without getting sick, but the latter is more contagious and deadly.
“We are seeing a huge impact from this virus,” said Hall, whose raptor center in St. Paul, Minnesota, treats approximately 1,000 birds a year. “We see birds coming to suffer from this virus every day.”
Nearly 61% of the 188 birds the rehab center has tested since late March have had bird flu and all but one have died. Hall said the center should create an area where workers carrying protective equipment test sick and injured birds for avian influenza and quarantine them before bringing them to the center to avoid infecting other birds.
None of the 114 positive cases the center registered, including 28 bald eagles, were included in the USDA census, Hall said. She said the great horned owl had recovered from the virus, giving her hope that some wild birds could fight it.
USDA officials have not answered questions about why they are excluding data from rehab centers.
In a study published three years ago, scientists estimated that the number of wild birds in North America has dropped by nearly 3 billion since 1970 as humans continue to encroach on their habitat. But it is too early to know what impact bird flu will have on bird populations, as the outbreak continues and there has not been enough time to study, according to Samantha Gibbs, a veterinarian at the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We are very worried. “I think we will be watching very closely what the death rates are in the spring and summer,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs and Paulson said they feared the virus could survive the summer, when it usually dies, leading to autumn infections when migratory birds return to the south. This happened in Europe, where the virus circulated first.
Bald Eagles – the national symbol of the United States since 1700 – are among the most famous success stories in preserving America. With approximately 300,000 bald eagles in the country today – a population that quadrupled between 2009 and 2021 – the bird was removed from the list of endangered species in the United States in 2007. With that in mind, experts believe the species must withstand the effects of this virus.
Government and federal officials will monitor the success of eagle nesting this spring and summer to assess the impact of the virus.
In Georgia, where three bald eagles killed tested positive for bird flu, the U.S. Department of Natural Resources has documented a sharp decline in bald eagle breeding this year in six coastal counties where many migratory birds spend the winter. Less than half of the 73 nests found there produce offspring, while nests elsewhere in the state have a success rate close to the average of 78% recorded in recent years.
Some experts, including Hall, have suggested that residential bird feeders should be removed to prevent further spread of the virus, but the USDA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have not recommended this because bird flu is common among songbirds, which often visit backyards. . However, they say it is important to clean bird feeders regularly to limit the spread of other diseases.
“Wild birds could use all the help they can get right now,” Hall said.
When the virus is found in poultry farms, workers slaughter entire flocks to limit its spread, even when most birds have no symptoms. So far, 37.36 million birds have been killed in 32 states.
USDA officials emphasize that bird flu does not endanger food safety, as infected birds are not allowed to enter the food supply, and proper cooking of poultry and eggs up to 165 degrees Fahrenheit will kill all viruses or bacteria.
Health officials also say bird flu does not pose a significant risk to human health, although one case of the disease in humans was confirmed in Colorado last month. Officials say people are unlikely to become infected with the virus unless they have been exposed to infected birds for a long time.
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